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Daywander

This entry will be a hodgepodge, or as they say in some circles, a “hotch potch.” (I think it’s a Britishism; Colin Wilson used that spelling many times.) Stuff has been piling up in the Contra file. Carol and I have been slighting housework for these past six months, she laid up after surgery on both feet, and me writing what has doubtless been the most difficult half-a-book I’ve ever written. We’ve been cleaning up, putting away, and generally getting back to real life. Real life never tasted so delicious.

One reason is rum horchata. I’m not one for hard liquor, mostly, and generally drink wine. (Beer tastes far too bitter to me.) But Rumchata got me in a second. It’s a dessert cordial no stronger than wine, with the result that you can actually taste the other ingredients, like vanilla, cream, and cinnamon. Highly recommended.

People ask me periodically what I’ve been reading. After soaking my behind in computer science for the past six or eight months, I’ve been studiously avoiding technology books. That said, I do endorse Degunking Windows 7 by my former co-author Joli Ballew. I actually used it to learn some of the Win7 details that weren’t obvious from beating my head on the OS. I wish it were a Coriolis book, but alas, it’s not. That doesn’t mean it’s not terrific.

True to my random inborn curiosity about everything except sports and opera, I’ve developed an interest in the chalk figures of southern England. The next time we get over there (soon, I hope, though probably not until summer 2015) we’re going to catch the Long Man of Wilmington, the White Horse of Uffington, and that very well hung (40 feet!) Cerne Giant. Other chalk figures exist, many of them horses. Some can be seen from Google Earth. A reasonable and cheap intro is Lost Gods of Albion by Paul Newman. The book’s been remaindered, and you can get a new hardcover for $3. I wouldn’t pay full price for it, but it was worth the hour and change it took to read. My primary complaint? It needs more pictures of chalk figures, duhh.

Quick aside: While researching kite aerial photography with my found-in-the-bushes GoPro Hero2 sports camera, I came upon an impressive video of the White Horse of Westbury taken from a double bow kite (rokkaku). I have the cam, and loads of kites. All I need now is a chalk figure. (I suspect I could coerce my nieces into drawing one for me.)

Far more interesting than Lost Gods of Albion was Gogmagog by Thomas Lethbridge. I lucked into a copy of the 1957 hardcover fairly cheap, but availability is spotty and you may have to do some sniffing around. If you’re willing to believe him, Lethbridge did an interesting thing back in the 1950s: He took a 19th century report that a chalk giant existed on a hillside in Wandlebury (near Cambridge) and went looking for it. His technique was dogged but straightforward: For months on end, he wandered around the hillside with a half-inch metal bar ground to a point, shoving it into the ground and recording how far it went in before it struck hard chalk. His reasoning was that the outlines of a chalk figure would be dug into the chalk, and thus farther down than undisturbed chalk. In time he had literally tens of thousands of data points, and used them to assemble a startling image of two gods, a goddess, a chariot, and a peculiar horse of the same sort as the Uffington White Horse.

Not everybody was convinced. Even though Lethbridge was a trained archaeologist, his critics claimed that he was a victim of pareidolia, and simply seeing the patterns he wanted to see in his thousands of hillside holes. The real problem was that Lethbridge was a pendulum dowser, and a vocal one: He published several books on the subject, which make a lot of claims that aren’t easily corroborated. Lethbridge claims that most people can dowse, and hey, it’s an experiment that I could make, if I decided it was worth the time. (It probably isn’t.)

The third book in my recent readings is The Physical Phenomena of Mysticism by Herbert Thurston, a Jesuit priest who spent a good part of his life collecting reports of peculiarly Catholic weirdnesses (stigmata, levitation, inedia, odor of sanctity, etc.) and presenting them in a manner similar to that of Charles Fort, if better written. Most of the articles were originally published in obscure theology journals, but were collected in 1952 in a volume that I’ve never seen for less than $100. Last year it was finally reprinted by White Crow Books and can be had for $18. I’m not sure what one can say about reports of people who have not eaten for forty years. Mysticism is a weird business, but physics is physics. The book is entertaining, and it’s given me some ideas for stories, particularly since I have a spiritually butt-kicking psychic little old Polish lady as a major chartacter in Old Catholics. (Vampires are just so 2007.)

If three books doesn’t seem like much, consider my habit of going back to books I’ve read and liked, and flipping through them to see what notations I’ve made in the margins. We all make them; when was the last time you deliberately went back to read and reconsider them? I’ve been dipping into Gary Taubes’ Good Calories, Bad Calories, Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature, Colin Wilson’s A Criminal History of Mankind, and Matt Ridley’s The Rational Optimist, and arguing with my own marginal notes. One can learn things arguing with oneself, and I’ve been known to change my mind based on things I scribbled in other people’s book’s ten or twelve years ago. (Before that I was too young to have anything like informed opinions.)

For example, I’ve gone back to calling it “global warming.” Climate is always changing, and the assumption that we know all the forces propelling those changes is just wrong–and in tribalist hands, willfully dishonest. Carbon dioxide has exactly one climate trick in its bag: It warms the atmosphere. That’s it. If the discussion is about carbon dioxide, it’s about global warming. Why climate changes is still so poorly understood (and so polluted by political hatred) that we may be decades before we even know what the major forcings are. In the meantime, I want predictions. If your model gives you climate data out fifty years, it will give you data out five. Publish those predictions. And if they prove wrong, be one of those people who really do #*%^*ing love science and admit it. Being wrong is how science works. Being political is how science dies.

I have a long-delayed electronics project back on the bench: Lee Hart’s CDP1802 Membership Card. I started it last summer, and set it aside when the Raspberry Pi gig turned up. It’s basically a COSMAC Elf in an Altoids tin. I had an Elf almost forty years ago. I programmed it in binary because that’s all there was in 1976. And y’know? I can still do it: F8 FF A2. F8 47 A5…

Some things really are eternal.

Odd Lots

Odd Lots

Odd Lots

  • Anger makes you stupid. Politics makes you angry. Do the math. (Thanks to Bob Trembley for the link.)
  • Running across George O. Smith’s books while redistributing titles on one of my shelves led me to look for the most powerful vacuum tube ever produced commercially. This was the understated Eimac 8974, which contains its own vacuum pump and could hurl out two million watts in Class C. QROOOOOOOOO! You can’t drive a truck into it, but you’ll need a truck to move it. And once you get it home, your first problem will be finding 600 amps to heat the filament.
  • Winter’s coming early to the West: We hit a record low here for this date yesterday night: 26 degrees. Two feet of snow fell in parts of the Dakotas, with some unofficial reports (like this one, in the appropriately named Deadwood, SD) of as much as four feet.
  • The Farmer’s Almanic is predicting a truly bitchy winter this year. (Note that this is not The Old Farmer’s Almanac, which is less sanguine.) We’ve noticed that the squirrels here are busting their nuts eating acorns, which is at least as good a predictor.
  • Speaking of brrrrrr: Recent research fingers the Llopango volcano in Ecuador as the triggering event of the severe global cooling of 535-536, which finished off the Western Empire via crop failures and the Plague of Justinian. It was a truly titanic eruption, hitting 6.9 on the Volcanic Explosivity Index and thus a peer of the gigapuissant Tambora. After that, well, there was nothing much to do except have the Dark Ages.
  • More scary robots. Four legs seems optimal for this sort of creature, which seems to be designed to carry cargo over bad terrain. It’s pretty clear to me that drones with machine guns make better manshunyoggers.
  • Most people don’t have a gut sense for what “ephemera” means, but if you want a sampling of the weirdest examples ever seen (as well as many cool and sometimes beautiful ones) prepare to spend some time on it. Don’t miss Part 2.
  • Which led me to Found in Mom’s Basement, a compendium of vintage ads. Some weird, some peculiar, some creepy, much Seventies. “Guess Whose Mother Used Downy?” Mort Drucker’s tampon ads. Read the archives!
  • How to deal with the highest of all high-class problems, albeit the one you’re least likely to face. (Thanks to Frank Glover for the link.)
  • One of the siller analyses I’ve seen recently. Then again, it may be the case that geeks are about culture and nerds are about ideas. I actually thought that nerds were what they called us in the Seventies and geeks are what they call us now.
  • From the Brutal Truth In Labeling Department. I’m in.

Odd Lots

Odd Lots

Odd Lots

Odd Lots

  • The length of the Earth’s day varies more than I would guess, and the cause seems to be a certain amount of slosh in our molten core.
  • PC World is shutting down its print edition. I still have early copies of both PC World and PC Magazine in boxes, including issues from those heady days when the PC universe was exploding like a supernova and the magazines could be an inch thick and heavier than some small dogs. If I could still make money in magazines I’d still be in magazines making money, but that train has left the station, the station has been razed, and the tracks sold for scrap.
  • I smell careers burning.
  • Which might be one reason the Chicago Tribune’s owners are doing this.
  • And yet another reason (among many) for this.
  • On a whim I went out and checked the Adobe CS2 download link that got so much attention this past January. Gone. I guess they calculated that anybody who was entitled to it already had it, and all the rest were pirates. I wonder if they understood that genii don’t return to their bottles once let loose.
  • How about some extreme swimming pools? Damn. I’d just like to have a really boring swimming pool right now.
  • Or maybe nine peculiar (old) vending machines. Read the comments, which contain more cool vending machine links. I saw beer vending machines on Japanese streets when I visited Tokyo in 1981. It shouldn’t be too long before a modern descendant of the Book-O-Matic actually prints and binds your book from scratch, while you watch. Alas, it will cost more than a quarter.
  • Speaking of descendants: I knew this. Did you?
  • Bill Higgins sent a link to some sort of German WWII tank training manual, written in German rhyme and illustrated in a very surreal fashion, including God carrying a tank on one shoulder and a chubby redheaded Aryan angel in leather boots, holding a cannon rammer. The Jaegermeister stag-and-cross is there too, which might explain a few things. Yet another reason I should have taken German in high school.
  • Speaking of Jaegermeister: I asked my nephew Matt what it tastes like. His answer: “You don’t want to know.” When pressed, he added, “Malort.” Only a little research confirmed that, yes, I really don’t want to know.
  • Choice is always good.

UPDATE: A little research on the Panther Primer shows that the figure I thought was God is St. Christopher; the angel in red braids is St. Barbara, and the guy chasing the buzzard is St. Hubert, who was a master hunter…a Jaegermeister. Siegfried is in there too, as are some Classical Greek figures. German tank crews must have been a pretty educated bunch.

Odd Lots

  • Ars has the best article I’ve yet seen on the recent ruling in the Apple ebook price fixing trial. Insight: Publishers get less under agency than they do under wholesale, but they’re willing to accept it to keep control of pricing. Book publishing is a freaky business. This may not work out as planned for the publishers.
  • Also from Ars: Weird search terms that brought readers to the Ars site. I used to publish these too, but I don’t get as many as I once did. Web search has always been a freaky business. I guess the freakiness just wanders around.
  • The sunspot cycle still struggles. Cycle 24 will be freaky, and weak–even with our modern tendency to count spots that could not be detected a hundred years ago.
  • Not news, but still freaky if you think about it: The Air Force tried building a flying saucer in 1956. The aliens are still laughing at us.
  • Actually, the best flying saucers are all triangles. In the greater UFO freakshow, these are by far my favorites.
  • There’s a quirk in the insurance industry that will allow young people to opt out of the ACA and still get health insurance–while paying much less they would buying traditional health policies under ACA. Life insurance policies often allow for accelerated payouts of benefits while the insured is still alive. My insight: Such a policy would be a way to finesse limited enrollment windows by paying for catastrophic care until enrollment opens again. (Which would be no more than ten months max.) And you thought publishing was a freaky business.
  • We thought we knew how muscles work. We were wrong. Human biology is always freakier than we thought.
  • As is washing your hair–in space.
  • Streaming is the ultimate end of the DRM debate. Music, movies, sure. Could one stream an ebook? Of course. Would people accept such a system, or would they freak out? Well, we thought DRM for serial content was dead, too. (Book publishers have become much more aggressive against piracy lately. More tomorrow.)
  • And finally, if you want freaky, consider the humble cicada killer, which vomits on its own head to keep from frying in the summer. We had them living under our driveway in Baltimore. I didn’t know what they were and they scared us a little until I called the county ag agent, who said, “They’re cicada killers, but don’t worry. They’re harmless.” I immediately called Carol at work to give her the good news. The receptionist at the clinic wrote down: “Jeff called. The things living under your driveway are psychotic killers, but don’t worry. They’re harmless.”

Odd Lots